(Editor’s note: A version of this story was first published on April 7, 2009. The late Gerald Hill was a prominent attorney, writer, political activist and teacher who, in his later years, also served as the Index-Tribune’s historian. He passed on March 6, 2012.)
Samuele Sebastiani insisted on “nothing but the best” when he decided to construct a state-of-the-art movie theater on a lot he owned across First Street East from the Sonoma Plaza. It was 1932 – the depth of the Great Depression – and the founder of the Sebastiani wine dynasty started by retaining San Francisco architect James W. Reid to design his dream theater.
Reid was an acclaimed architect who designed the fabled Del Coronado hotel in San Diego and, with his brother, pioneered steel-frame buildings on the West Coast. They also built the steel-framed Fairmont Hotel, the Cliff House Restaurant, the First Congregational Church and the Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park, along with numerous classic movie thaters.
Reid was about to close his office when Samuele Sebastiani convinced him to design one more theater, with no expense spared. So the 80-year-old Reid personally began the drawings for the Sebastiani Theatre, choosing “theatre” with the Canadian/English spelling.
Beginning in November 1932, and continuing through 1933, Sonomans followed the rise of 160 tons of steel framework, topped by a tower higher than City Hall. Shipments of well-aged oak barrel staves from a dismantled Sacramento brewery arrived to be used for railings and doors, and the floor of the 60-foot long foyer was laid with mosaic tiles. The design included a 60-by-80 foot stage, large enough for dramatic performances, with extensive lighting and a massive metal marquee with “Sebastiani Theatre” spelled out in red neon supplied by nearby Mission Hardware.
Upstairs was a 5,000-square-foot ballroom with a kitchen for banquets, meetings, dances and entertainment. Remarkable for the period, not only was there heating, but it could be switched to “air conditioning” on a hot day. Everyone agreed that the theater’s Italian Renaissance design was splendid.
The grand opening took place on Saturday, April 7, 1934, and the Index-Tribune editorialized that the “Theatre marks [a] new era of progress.”
Some 450 customers crammed into the theater for a celebratory ceremony prior to showing the first movie. Master of ceremonies was grammar school Principal J. P. Prestwood.
The inaugural film (tickets were 30 cents) was the spanking new MGM release, “The Fugitive Lovers,” a mix of humor, romance and escape from danger, starring Robert Montgomery and Madge Evans. While a second showing of the movie was on the screen, in the upstairs hall the Italian Club put on a dance to raise funds for completion of the Italian fountain in the Plaza. Sebastiani sweet wine was served publicly for the first time since the repeal of Prohibition four months earlier.
A highlight of those early years was a “local premiere” in 1941 of “The Sea Wolf,” based on the powerful novel by famed Sonoma Valley author, Jack London. Stars Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield were among its actors who appeared at the premiere party.
By the 1960s, the Sebastiani faced competition from the increasing popularity of television.The number of screenings was reduced and the theater was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. There were never enough funds for up-grades or to cover normal wear and tear to carpeting and seats. In December 1969, then-manager Bob Craig turned over operation to the Sonoma Valley Jaycees. They hoped to make a profit to help pay for the Santa Claus Fly-in, the Junior Miss Contest and the Glen Ellen Fair. Lanny Phillips, acting as manager for the Jaycees, announced the theater would be open seven days a week. General admission was $1.25.